“The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.” –Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics
I’m a pushover for an underdog story. There’s something about the “come from behind“, “no one said they could do it“, “triumph over all odds” tale, that really resonates with me. Perhaps it’s the emotional exhilaration watching the person that no one thought anything of, superseding all expectations to become the most impressive competitor. That’s the driving force behind the storyline of Moneyball, the chronicle of Billy Beane. As general manager of the Oakland Athletics, he took a low payroll and was able to assemble an impressive team to compete against the big boys with deep pockets. I’m talking about the Yankees, specifically, a baseball franchise with more money than God.
As the drama begins, the A’s are coming off a particularly good season. They’ve made it to the playoffs yet again, only to fall short of the championship. Once the series is over, their best players are lured away by teams that can promise larger paychecks. Beane laments that they’re like “a farm team for the New York Yankees.” How to do battle in a game where money can buy a championship? Then he meets Peter Brand (a pseudonym for Paul DePodesta). He’s working for the Cleveland Indians and it’s through his analysis and non-traditional sabermetric approach to scouting players that attracts Beane’s attention. Brand evaluates players based on objective, empirical evidence rather than the traditional scouting methods. He becomes Beane’s assistant. With Brand’s help, he attempts to create a competitive baseball team at a fraction of the cost.
Brad Pitt is extraordinary. It’s not a showy, awards-bait performance but it is powerful in it’s subtlety. He’s remarkably restrained. Because of Pitt’s appearance and the subject matter I was reminded of Robert Redford’s The Natural while watching this. Both are uplifting stories about baseball, however Moneyball isn’t a sports movie, fundamentally. It deals more with what happens behind the scenes – beating the odds using non-traditional methods. Baseball informs the narrative and there are many rousing scenes of the sport in action, but it’s Billy Beane that permeates the drama with such considerable heart. We get not only an intimate glimpse into the soul of the man, but also the A’s organization and the various players that affected that winning season.
Ultimately what makes Moneyball so amazing is Billy Beane. Moneyball is adapted from American investigative journalist Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name. This literary source is the basis for the script by master scribes Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. It’s telling that the most exciting scenes of Moneyball aren’t the competitive games, but the back and forth trading of players. One particularly amusing scene has Beane and Brand haggling over acquiring Ricardo Rincón from the Cleveland Indians. It’s a masterfully written spectacle. Everything simply takes place in a room over the phone. There’s no reason why that should be so riveting, but it is. If statistics and computer analysis sounds like a surprising subject for a film, you’d be right. It’s the film’s biggest shock that the business of Baseball could actually be made more exciting than the game itself. A film that celebrates the romance and majesty of a game in a way I’ve never seen before, much like the man, Billy Beane, himself.